Book Review

GARRETT G. FAGAN (ed.). Archaeological Fantasies: How pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past and misleads the public. xx+418 pages, 27 illustrations, 9 tables. 2006. London & New York: Routledge; 0-415-30593-4 paperback £25.

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Groupe de Recherches sur les Savoirs, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France

Antiquity 81 no. 312 June 2007


Archaeological Fantasies is a collection of essays on 'pseudoscientifc archaeology'. The volume is divided into three parts. The first endeavours to define and to explain pseudoarchaelogy as a category supposed to designate a coherent set of social and psychological facts. The second part presents five case studies on pseudoarcheological ideas relating to Pharaonic Egypt, to the Maya civilisation, and to the ancient history of the 'Aryans', the Celts, and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. The third section brings together three miscellaneous contributions: a story of a TV program about a pseudoscientific conception, a plea against the irrational, and an inquiry into two pseudoscientific theories with the aim of highlighting their connexion to postmodernism. The editor of the volume insists that its purpose is less a refutation of specific pseudoarchaeological claims — excellent examples of which are already on the market — as it is an attempt to understand pseudoarchaeology as a social phenomenon.

What strikes the reader first is a bewildering accumulation of invectives directed at pseudoscience: fantasies, frauds, tricks, absurdities, self-delusion, nonsense, superstition, mumbo-jumbo, lunacy, ineptitude, charlatanism, goofiness, mummery, 'pyramidiocy', 'bullshit archaeology', etc. The bias is explicit: 'the pernicious stuff' of pseudoscience, the production of which is 'motivated by money and fame', misleads the public and 'corrupts the basis of factual knowledge'; as such, pseudoscience has to be debunked and extirpated (pp. xv & 48). The tone recalls that of the pamphlets of missionaries who, in the days of old, facing beliefs they did not subscribe to, used to castigate abominable creeds of idolaters in the name of the Truth.

This 'missionary' stance, widespread among the modern debunkers, might be understood, even forgiven, inasmuch as some of the conceptions it targets are worrying indeed; in any case, they all require an answer on the part of the academic community, whose duty is to explain to the general public the difference between scholarly knowledge and theories that cannot obtain scientific approval. Unfortunately, the eagerness to judge pseudoscience exclusively from an epistemological and moral standpoint does not favour understanding of pseudoscience as a social fact, which was the purpose ascribed to the book by its own editor.

From the outset the authors are persuaded that the phenomenon called 'pseudoscientific archaeology' is nothing more than an unsound archaeology. This presumption leads them to believe that their competence in the field of scholarly archaeology equips them sufficiently to address the issue of 'pseudoscientific archaeology'. The majority of contributors to this volume are indeed archaeologists, poorly prepared to handle concepts of sociology, history or ethnology, and prone to claim that 'common sense is sufficient for this debate' (p. 58). It is therefore not surprising that they devote only a few paragraphs to the history and sociology of 'pseudoscientific archaeology'. These scarcely meet the norms of 'serious scholarship', the authority of which the authors evoke so gladly when criticising pseudoscience. Instead, they favour psychological explanations, sometimes referring to mental pathologies (e.g. 'lunacy', 'a schizophrenic production of knowledge'), sometimes being content with a naive psychology (e.g. 'desire', 'resentment', 'fear', 'cultural instincts' (?), 'an appeal to old emotions' (?)). This slant effectively amounts to a pre-Durkheiman vision of social facts, reduced to the psychological properties of individuals, which are seen as pathological according to the first of these explanation (lunacy), as archaic according to the second (old emotions).

Not being specialists either in sociology, ethnology, or history, the contributors appear ignorant of research already undertaken in these disciplines regarding the cultural current of esotericism (aka occultism), from which ideas qualified by them as 'pseudoscientific archaeology' continue to emerge and to spread since the second half of the nineteenth century. They are also unaware that the archaeological component is only one among others in the occultist theories that propose an elaborated worldview designed as an alternative to those of science and of Christian theology. At first, it can seem incongruous to imagine the former hotel manager Erich von Däniken not as some swindler or lunatic, but rather as a genuine plebeian thinker, putting together a cosmological conception typical of a long-standing cultural tradition. That's what he is however, analogous to Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller described by Carlo Ginzburg in his classical study: although a peasant, Menocchio was able to formulate a cosmology no less singular than those of Giordano Bruno or Pietro Pomponazzi. But Menocchio's heterodox theory was anathema to his learned inquisition judges, so they condemned it with a haughty arrogance, reminiscent of the attitude scientists adopt nowadays towards 'pseudoscientific heresies'.

When I grant the status of an intellectual creation of low culture to 'pseudoscientific archaeology', I do not intend to put it on the same level as academic archaeology or to claim that all ideas are equally valid from an epistemological standpoint. What is at stake is rather our capacity to grasp the cultural dimension of pseudoscience. In fact, once we have shown that it is inferior to academic science (which is a truism for most of the scientists and their public), we still have done nothing to understand pseudoscience as a social phenomenon. The contributors to Archaeological Fantasies, despite claims to the contrary, did in fact very little to accomplish it, nor do they refer to those who have attempted to do so before them. It might be understood at a pinch that they omit all works published in languages other than English, being interested exclusively in publications in their own native tongue, as attested by the almost monolingual bibliography at the end of the volume. It is less understandable that they also remain indifferent to the numerous publications concerning the sociology and history of esoteric subculture, in English. Several contributors nevertheless notice among the pseudos 'a taste for the esoteric' (p. 128), an interest for 'the lost spiritual knowledge of the ancients' (p. 99) and for occultism (p. 118), or the 'expectations of unearthing “lost wisdom”' (pp. 42 & 270), but they seem unable to interpret theses clues and content themselves with concluding that the pseudos suffer from an 'obsession with esoterica' (p. 38): psychopathology again!

The main difference between 'missionary criticism' and anthropological comprehension is that the first sees in beliefs of the Other a scandal that should be abolished, while the second sees a cultural difference that should be understood. Archaeological Fantasies prefers to adopt the 'missionary' stance. G. Levitt illustrates it bluntly, calling for a 'crusade against pseudoscience' in order to 'extirpate scientifically insupportable modes of beliefs' (pp. 278 & 283). This proselytizing fervour neutralises in advance any desire to understand, and reduces to the most rudimentary form all attempts at a description. The authors constantly praise 'accurate knowledge', 'critical spirit', and 'serious scholarship', but the way in which they study pseudoscience exposes their lack of accurate knowledge, of critical spirit, and of serious scholarship (with the exception of Bettina Arnold, and of Alan Sokal when he refers to the publications of M. Nanda). It is paradoxical to see researchers, who sincerely wish to defend science, making so little use of it when studying pseudoscience. The best plea in favour of rigorous scholarship would be a rigorous study of pseudoscience. Alas, Archaeological Fantasies fails to provide it.

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